Anti-Harassment Frequently Asked Questions

Section Summary

No matter a person’s position or title, harassment and inappropriate conduct are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. NIH’s anti-harassment program supports a culture of civility and respect to create a safe work environment. Harassment doesn’t work here.

The entire NIH community, including trainees, contractors and visitors, must work together to RECOGNIZE, REPORT, and RESOLVE harassment and inappropriate conduct. Below are responses to questions you may have about harassment and related NIH resources.

General Process FAQs


What is harassment?

Unwelcome, deliberate, or repeated unsolicited verbal or physical conduct based upon race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability (i.e., a protected class status), including, but not limited to, comments, gestures, graphic materials, physical contact, solicitation of favors, when:

  • Submission to or rejection of the conduct by an individual could be used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual; OR
  • The conduct is severe or pervasive enough that it substantially interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. 

What is sexual harassment?

A form of harassment that involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, severely or pervasively interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. 

What is inappropriate conduct?

Inappropriate conduct is much broader than the definition of harassment and does not have to be based on a protected class status.  It may include similar behaviors, such as comments or conduct that could reasonably be perceived as disruptive, disrespectful, offensive, or inappropriate in the workplace. 

What behaviors do not meet the definition of harassment or inappropriate conduct?

Some workplace behaviors are problematic, and should be dealt with, but do not rise to the level of harassment or inappropriate conduct. This may include misunderstandings of behavior by other staff members, non-threatening and non-inappropriate arguments or disputes, a miscommunicated or misinterpreted comment or similar isolated incidents.  If you are ever in doubt about whether or not a behavior constitutes harassment or inappropriate conduct, please contact the Civil Program for further guidance and always err on the side of reporting.

How can I report harassment or inappropriate conduct?

Can I talk through my options confidentially first before officially reporting a concern?

Confidentiality indicates that what one says is private or secret and no further action will be taken. To discuss your concerns with an office that operates under principles of confidentiality are not required to take action, please call:

Please note that management officials cannot guarantee confidentiality to staff when it comes to allegations of harassment.  If a federal or non-federal worker reports an allegation that meets the definition of harassment, including sexual harassment, to any supervisor or manager, they must contact the Civil Program.

Can reports be made to the Civil Program anonymously?

Although reports cannot be made to the Civil Program confidentially, they can be made anonymously, which means the reporting party does not have to identify themselves.  However, Civil Specialists and management officials have to follow up on all allegations of harassment and cannot guarantee that the reporting party’s identity will not become apparent during this process.  Also, remaining anonymous requires key details about the allegation or concern to be omitted, which will limit the NIH’s ability to conduct an inquiry and take corrective action as warranted.

How does the NIH work to resolve harassment or inappropriate conduct?

Appropriate action for federal employees may include, but is not limited to: written counseling, reprimand, suspension, demotion, or removal from one’s position and/or from the Federal Service. Such actions may also be considered when making administrative decisions related to funding, staffing, and other resources. 

If the offender is a Government contractor, corrective and/or disciplinary action will be the responsibility of the contracting company and negative performance may be recorded in the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS), if warranted. 

What is the difference between reporting harassment to the Civil Program and reporting harassment to the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion?

Reporting a concern to the Civil Program is not equivalent to or in lieu of filing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Complaint of Discrimination. The Civil Program carries out NIH’s responsibility to conduct an administrative inquiry on an allegation of harassment or related inappropriate conduct.  This is a stand-alone requirement to ensure that all allegations of harassment and inappropriate conduct are examined and addressed expeditiously. 

An EEO complaint is initiated by the employee and the process is focused on investigating and resolving discrimination based upon race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability (i.e., a protected class status). It prevents the recurrence of unlawful discriminatory conduct, but cannot require an agency to discipline its employees. Employees must contact the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within 45 days of the discriminatory incident to file a Pre-Complaint of Discrimination. 

Once an EEO complaint is filed with an allegation of discriminatory workplace harassment, the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will notify the Institute/Center/Office (ICO) and the Civil Program of the allegation, which will initiate NIH’s obligation to conduct an administrative inquiry. The line of questioning will be similar for both processes, so you may ask the Civil Specialist if you can use your EEO submission for the Civil inquiry process.

Does a complaint to the Civil Program have to be made within a certain timeframe?

There is no timeframe to report an allegation to the Civil Program. However, old information may limit the NIH’s ability to conduct a thorough inquiry and take corrective action. This timeframe differs from the EEO complaint process in which a complaint must be filed from 45 days of the discriminatory treatment.

Will I find out the results of the administrative inquiry?

The reporting party will receive notification that the inquiry is complete and that Civil Specialists are working with management to ensure a safe and civil work environment, but no other information will be provided. Civil Specialists do not release reports or findings, as they are responsible for safeguarding the privacy of all staff.

To learn more about what you can do to help create a civil work environment, visit civilworkplace.nih.gov.

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FAQs for Respondents


I’ve been accused of inappropriate conduct or harassment. What happens next?

Before contacting the respondent, the Civil Specialist will reach out to prospective witnesses provided by the reporting party to obtain their perspectives on specific interactions. Gathering all of the information prior to asking the respondent questions prevents having to go back and ask additional questions as more information becomes available. Waiting to be contacted can be stressful and uncomfortable and you are encouraged to utilize all of the NIH resources available to you, including the Office of the Ombudsman and the Employee Assistance Program.

You should answer the questions the Civil Specialist asks honestly and share your perspective. Please be as forthcoming as possible and provide any documentation that you think may be relevant.  If you have any questions or concerns about the process or the questions that you are being asked to answer, you should reach out to the Civil Specialist directly.  Additionally, if you are provided specific instructions by your supervisor during the inquiry (e.g., reporting to a different location, refraining from contacting specific individuals, etc.), please follow those instructions. These measures are not a presumption of guilt but protect both parties involved as Civil works to understand what occurred. 

How long does an inquiry take?

The Civil Program receives a wide variety of cases.  In order to properly gather facts in an objective and thorough manner, effective administrative inquiries can take several weeks or longer.  Many factors can contribute to the time it takes to complete an inquiry, including obtaining statements from and/or scheduling interviews with multiple staff members, analyzing all the information provided, and coordinating with appropriate management officials and other stakeholders.  Please keep in mind that your communication with others, including Civil Program staff, before and during the inquiry will be considered in the findings.

When will I get a chance to give my side of the story?

By design, your statement will be collected, or your interview will be held last, after all other statements or interviews are complete. This is so you have an opportunity to respond fully to any and all concerns raised.  If you provide a response before, we complete the collection of witness statements, we would not know all of the information to ask you.  The process is set up in this way specifically to reduce the number of times that the Civil Specialist or third-party contractor needs to contact you to provide responses to all allegations. However, all information and communication you have with Civil staff throughout the process is taken into consideration as part of the overall review. Please note that there is no assumption of a policy violation. Civil considers all available information objectively when making determinations regarding a violation of policy.

What if my direct report is alleging harassment against me?

You should reach out to the Civil Program and cooperate fully with the inquiry. Additionally, you must continue to supervise the employee, including addressing conduct and performance issues (as needed) utilizing guidance from your servicing Employee Relations Specialist and/or the Office of the Ombudsman.

Can management take action against me if Civil has not completed its inquiry?

Depending on the nature of the allegations, management may coordinate with Employee and Labor Relations or the contract company, if applicable, to discuss available interim options pending the outcome of the inquiry. Examples of cases where this may be warranted include, but are not limited to, allegations of sexual harassment or physical safety concerns. As the respondent, you may be moved to another office or placed on telework until more information is gathered.  In severe cases of harm to self or others, they may also consult with the NIH Police and ICO leadership for an NIH facilities ban and administrative leave. Interim actions are not indicative of a finding of policy violation by the Civil Program and are implemented to ensure the safety and security of all staff during the inquiry process. Civil will continue to gather and analyze information from all perspectives before making a determination.

I have been instructed to move or otherwise report to a different location. How will you ensure that my reputation is protected during this inquiry?

Depending on the nature of the allegations, management may coordinate with Employee and Labor Relations or the contract company, if applicable, to discuss available interim options to separate parties pending the outcome of the inquiry. This is done both for the protection of the reporting party and the respondent to ensure that both are not put in a position where they will further interact with each other. These types of changes are not taken lightly, and the decision is made by IC management in coordination with Civil and Employee Relations. Information regarding this change is kept on a need-to-know basis and staff are not provided with details. Rampant gossiping about situations is not tolerated and should be reported to management and Civil immediately.

Do I have to participate or answer your questions?

Yes. In accordance with NIH Policy Manual Chapter 1311, every member of the NIH community is responsible for cooperating fully and truthfully in administrative inquiries into allegations of harassment and inappropriate conduct. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.

Is it okay for me to talk with my coworkers about the inquiry?

You should not talk to or confront any colleagues about this matter to preserve the integrity of the process.  Those individuals may be asked for statements (and are obligated to provide such) and it is important that their statements are made in their own words based on their own perception. In addition, please be aware that retaliatory treatment towards any NIH employee or non-federal worker for reporting allegations of inappropriate conduct or harassment or for participating as a witness in an administrative inquiry is prohibited. Communicating about the Civil process with individuals who may provide or have provided information to the Civil Program can be perceived as retaliatory or intimidating behavior. However, you are not prohibited from discussing such with your supervisory chain of command, Employee Relations Specialist, your EEO counselor or legal representative.

Do I need a lawyer?

The choice to obtain the service of a lawyer or obtain representation is a personal decision. Civil Program Specialists do not give advice in that regard.

Can I have my lawyer look over these questions before I respond?

You are not prohibited from discussing the matter and the questions with your supervisory chain of command, Employee Relations Specialist, your EEO counselor, or legal representative.

Can I have a lawyer or representative present during my interview?

No, this is an administrative process which does not entitle you to representation during an interview.  You may have your lawyer or representative review your response when you are provided the written notes from the interview.  While we are unable to accommodate your attorney’s presence at the interview, we can sometimes allow a management official from the IC to be present. If you would like to do so, please feel free to contact your Executive Officer to request such. However, please note that attendance is at the discretion of Civil and IC management and you will not be able to request a specific management official of your choosing.

I am a bargaining unit employee (BUE). Can I have my union representative present?

You may have your union representative present if you are a bargaining unit employee and invoke your Weingarten rights.

I am a contractor. Can I have a representative from my contracting company present?

The Civil Program works closely with contracting companies when a contractor is involved in our process. Since the contract company is the official employer of contract employees, we give the contracting company the opportunity to be present during the interview if they wish to do so.

What is the difference between a climate assessment and an administrative inquiry?

Climate assessments are typically used for allegations that are very broad or otherwise contain limited details. Climate assessment may also be conducted when anonymous allegations are received. Questions can be targeted to specific witnesses or to the entire work unit, depending on the nature of the allegations. Witnesses are asked general questions about their perceptions of the work environment and responses are provided in aggregate to management. Often, the outcome for climate assessments can provide helpful information that can be used to improve the overall work environment. In some cases, respondents receive positive information regarding their interactions with other staff.  If any of the information received warrants a more in-depth review, a climate assessment could lead to a more targeted administrative inquiry. 

Administrative inquiries are typically used for specific, detailed allegations. In this case, witnesses are asked to respond to specific questions about the allegations to obtain their perspectives. Witness responses are normally not anonymous, and statements are gathered from individuals specifically identified as witnesses. Disciplinary action is considered when it is found to be more likely true than not that a respondent violated the policy, based on the collected statements and supporting documentation. If any of the information received warrants a broader review of the overall environment, an administrative inquiry could lead to a climate assessment. 

I would like to collect statements and character references on my own behalf for this process. Will that documentation be considered as part of the record?

If you have the names of witnesses who have direct knowledge of the allegation, please provide the names to your Civil Specialist, along with a brief statement of what knowledge they have. Reaching out to witnesses yourself could be perceived as interfering in the process and as retaliatory. Regarding character witnesses for individuals outside of the NIH, please know that the administrative inquiry is not a legal process. The purpose is to obtain an understanding  if a policy violation occurred in a limited, discrete circumstance and is not a broad judgement on who you are as a person. If you provide statements of individual character witnesses from individuals outside of the NIH that have no knowledge of the actual allegations, then these will be disregarded.

Why is Civil instructing my supervisor to make specific decisions?

Managers and supervisors are obligated to prevent and address harassment and inappropriate conduct that affects the workplace. Civil Specialists have the duty to ensure that these obligations are carried out in an appropriate manner in accordance with NIH Manual Chapter 1311.  As such, Civil works with Employee Relations to provide guidance to managers. That being said, Civil does not have authority over supervisors and the supervisor is ultimately responsible for taking an action and making decisions regarding disciplinary actions, temporary moves, instructions, etc.

What protection do I have from people making false allegations?

Civil Specialists will ensure a thorough review of all allegations that are reported to them. There is no presumption of guilt and you will have an opportunity to respond to all allegations.

I was notified the Civil inquiry is now closed, what happens next? 

The Civil program will forward their findings to management and the servicing Employee Relations Specialist.  Management will contact you in the near future regarding next steps, if applicable. 

Can I have a copy of the report? What were the findings?

Due to personnel privacy, the Civil Program is unable to share any information surrounding potential corrective actions, determinations, or findings. Because Civil’s role is to review the allegations on behalf of NIH, findings are only released to the appropriate management officials and the Employee and Labor Relations Branch for next steps. Any further communication on the case will come directly from them. In order to protect the privacy of all those directly involved, Civil does not release their findings to anyone else. However, should the findings result in disciplinary action, employees will have the opportunity to respond and receive due process at that time.

How is corrective action determined for a case?

Once an administrative inquiry is complete, Civil Specialists begin an interactive process with Employee Relations Specialists and the appropriate management officials to review the facts of the case to determine what, if any, corrective action is necessary. Corrective action is based on Federal Employee Relations regulations and NIH policies and practices.

What are the different types of possible corrective actions?

Appropriate corrective action for federal employees may include, but is not limited to verbal counseling, training, written counseling, reprimand, suspension, demotion, or removal from one’s position and/or from the Federal Service, depending on the nature and severity of the findings. Such actions may also be considered when making administrative decisions related to funding, staffing, and other resources.

For Government contractors, corrective and/or disciplinary action will be the responsibility of the contracting company and negative performance may be recorded in the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS), if warranted.

For trainees, corrective action will be determined by management in close coordination with the Office of Intramural Training and Education.

Can the Civil program assist me with finding a new position?

No, the purview of the Civil Program is to determine if a policy has been violated and to ensure any inappropriate behavior is stopped and addressed appropriately. Civil Specialists do not mediate interpersonal conflicts, nor do they negotiate resolutions, such as a job transition.  If you’d like assistance with communication facilitation, mediation, or other resolutions, please contact the Office of the Ombudsman, Employee Assistance Program, or Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

How can I trust that Civil is objective and not advocating for one side or another?

The purpose of the NIH Civil Program is to ensure that there is an objective, centralized review of allegations and that all allegations are subjected to the same process throughout NIH. Civil Specialists collect statements from witnesses and respondents to obtain a full picture of all perspectives involved.

Why was I not provided the interview questions prior to my interview with a Civil specialist?

For allegations in which interviews are necessary rather than written responses, all witnesses and the respondent are asked to provide verbal responses. This is consistent across all cases that involve interviews. Upon interview completion, the Civil Specialist will send notes of the discussion. At that time, the respondent will be asked to use tracked changes to make any edits. Their changes will be included in the record along with the original notes.

Why did my case not follow the procedures outlined in this documents and on your website?

While Civil Specialists make every effort to ensure that all cases are handled swiftly and consistently, they also have the right to determine how to manage each case on an individual basis. Cases evolve rapidly and Civil Specialists often have to make quick decisions with the information available at the time. Each case is unique, and some cases require variation in approach.

What is the difference between the Civil program and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)?

Reporting a concern to the Civil Program is not equivalent to, nor does it replace filing an EEO Complaint of Discrimination. The Civil Program carries out NIH’s internal responsibility to investigate and address harassing behaviors in an expeditious manner. This is a stand-alone requirement to ensure that all allegations of harassment are examined expeditiously, and any inappropriate behavior is curtailed quickly through appropriate corrective action.

The EEO complaint process is initiated by the employee and the process is focused on investigating if discrimination occurred and determining whether the NIH was liable for that discrimination. It provides remediation for unlawful discriminatory conduct but cannot intervene to proactively prevent further acts of such conduct. Employees must contact the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within 45 days of the discriminatory incident in order to file a Pre-Complaint of Discrimination.

Once an EEO complaint is filed with an allegation of workplace harassment, the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will notify the Institute/Center/Office and the Civil Program of the allegation, which will initiate NIH’s obligation to conduct an administrative inquiry. Although both processes may be addressing the same allegation, they are unrelated, and you must participate in both processes. If the line of questioning is similar in both processes, you may ask the Civil Specialist if you can use your EEO submission for the inquiry process.

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